Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Surrendered, by Chang-Rae Lee

Reading Chang-Rae Lee's The Surrendered is harrowing. The book opens with a devastating description of the destruction of 11-year-old June Han's family in 1950 Korea. When the scene shifts to Manhattan in the 1980s, the reader is relieved--the adult June seems to have found some success and perhaps even a bit of happiness in her relatively late and brief marriage (her husband died of a heart attack). But the respite is short-lived, for June is dying of cancer and desperate to find her son Nicholas, who went to Europe for a post-high school tour and never returned. June clearly regards her parenting as flawed and wants to make amends. She hires a private detective to find her son, who has become a small-time crook in Europe, and his father, a former America soldier June knew in Korea. The father, Hector, is living a squalid life as a janitor and bar-room brawler in New Jersey.

Lee then takes us backward and forward in time. filling in Hector and June's stories. We learn about Hector's childhood with an alcoholic father, his experience in the Korean War, and his meeting with June on the road in Korea. Having received a less-than-honorable discharge, Hector has decided to stay in Korea and work at an orphanage, where June also takes up residence. Both become enamored with Sylvie Tanner, wife of the new head of the orphanage. Sylvie, too, is deeply damaged, having seen her missionary parents tortured and killed by Japanese soldiers in Manchuria in 1934. Sylvie is a heroin addict who obsessively reads J. H. Dunant's A Memory of Solferino, an account of a deadly nineteenth-century battle in Italy.

In the 1980s, Hector wants nothing to do with June, but when his new woman-friend and June's detective are both killed in a bizarre car accident, he relents, and he and June embark on a trip through Europe, hoping to find their son and travel with him to Solferino. With June's health declining rapidly (her dependence on morphine echoes Sylvie's earlier addiction), the trip is grueling. As the two complete their pilgrimage with June on the verge of dying, Lee also brings the story in Korea to a fiery climax.

The lives of the three main characters in The Surrendered are ruined by the violence of war--while Sylvia, June, and Hector try in various ways to move beyond the traumas that shaped them, their scars eventually end up harming the other people they care about. Although the story in Europe drags a bit, overall Lee drives the story forward relentlessly, and the reader can only keep reading with a deep sense of dread and sadness. This tragedy is complete.

Favorite passages:
She let go his still warm hand, kissed his still-warm face. She stayed with him as long as she could. But when the last car of the train passed her she rose to her feet and steadied herself. And then she ran for her life.

But it was messy; love was the question that had confounded her most in life. With "loved ones"--with a mother and father, sisters and brother, with a son--one always began with love and proceeded from there, and through time and happenstance saw it broadened, or shored up, or else steadily assailed, wrecked, and torn down.
But for June it had not been exactly so; her secret feeling was that the opposite was true. Even before they had all perished, or vanished, she had had a heart that craved more readily than it accepted, she could look upon the face of a beloved with no ill reason or malice and in an instant cleave herself from the bond. It was an effortlessly monstrous ability, as if she could simply pluck from her heel a spur called love, her own cool blood the quickest antidote.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Murder Shoots the Bull, by Anne George

Murder Shoots the Bull (even after reading the book, I don't know what the title means) is part of the "Southern Sisters Mystery" series, which I had not previously heard of. It features sisters Mary Alice (a wealthy woman as a result of being widowed three times) and Patricia Anne (a happily married semi-retired teacher). They might best be described as lovable Southern busy-bodies. While they do some sleuthing, the mystery of who killed Patricia's next door neighbor's first wife seems less the point than milking the sisters' idiosyncracies for laughs. In addition, author Anne George (who died in 2001) pays a lot of attention to what and where narrator Patricia eats. We hear about various restaurant, carry-out, and home-cooked meals. With this much attention to food, I'm surprised she didn't go the whole nine yards and make the series culinary mysteries. An okay book to read on an airplane (which is where I read most of it), but not compelling enough to send me out looking for the other seven books in the series.

Favorite passage:

We are not nice people. So what.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Our Town, by Thornton Wilder

Our Town is the second play on Novel Conversations' five-year-long reading list--and comments at our last meeting suggest that some members are not fond of reading this form of literature. A play (or at least a relatively modern play) tends to be a fast read--sometimes it's actually too fast a read. You can easily just slide along reading the dialogue without really engaging. Because there is generally no narration and you are not seeing the actors bring the words to life, the dialogue (and, to a much lesser extent the stage directions) must carry the burden of conveying everything the playwright has in mind.

In a sense, however, the role of the stage manager in Our Town--a "character" who introduces the other characters and explains much of what is happening--gives Our Town a more novelistic flavor. Thornton Wilder uses the stage manager to introduce Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, the Webb and Gibbs families, and other residents of the small town, from the alcoholic choir director, to the brilliant paper boy destined to die in World War I, and the local constable. The stage manager also directs the reader's/viewer's attention to where Wilder wants it--to the changes in town, the "naturalness of marriage," the process of grief. The play's other key characters are Emily Webb and George Gibbs, children in Act I who will fall in love and marry in Act II; in Act III, the dead of the town welcome Emily to the cemetery. In truth, not a lot happens in the play, but that is the point--the everyday events are what make up a life and gain meaning by our attention to them.

Our Town was first staged in 1938; in 2010, it is in revival on Broadway and being presented at the Provincetown Theater in Massachusetts. An operatic version will be offered as part of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival this summer. Why does this apparently simple play endure? I think there are three reasons: the theme resonates with everyone, the play is not as opaque as many modern dramas, and production costs are low (there is no actual set and few props).

I don't think I've seen the play since 1966, when it was the senior class play at Rochelle Township High School (my brother played Professor Willard). I'd be interested in reflections from someone who has seen it recently. I'm hoping to see the PBS version starring Paul Newman as the stage manager before we discuss the play in book group.

Favorite passages:

Mrs. Webb: Emily, you make me tired. Now stop it. You're pretty enough for all normal purposes--Come along now and bring the bowl with you.

Stage Manager: Now there are some things we all know, but we don't take'm out and look at'm very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't names, and it ain't earth, and it ain't even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you'd be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being.
You know as well as I do that the dead don't stay interested in us living people for very long. Gradually, gradually, they lose hold of the earth . . . and the ambitions they had . . . and the pleasures they had . . . and the things they suffered . . . and the people they loved.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Hell Gate, Linda Fairstein

I really, really, really wonder why I keep reading some of these mystery series. Hell Gate is Linda Fairstein's twelfth novel featuring NY sex crimes prosecutor Alexandra Cooper. Just how tired the series has gotten can be seen in the book's concluding chapter, in which the several intertwined mysteries that Alex and her sidekicks Chapman and Mercer solve are explained as the three present the evidence to a federal prosecutor. . . so lame. In addition, the "sexual tension" between Alex and Mike Chapman has become extremely annoying; in fact, it's hard to imagine a high-powered DA putting up with the crap Chapman gives Alex on the job, no matter how much she wants to sleep with him (regardless of what hot guy she is already sleeping with).

As usual, there is a lot of New York history thrown into the mix, but it would probably be more rewarding just to read a history of the city.

Favorite passage: None

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

Colum McCann opens Let the Great World Spin with an absolutely gripping third-person description of the minutes before Philippe Petit stepped onto a wire spanning the World Trade Center towers on August 7, 1974. In the next chapter, he abruptly shifts to a first-person narrative of Ciaran Corrigan living in post-War Dublin, and the reader (or at least this reader) is momentarily disoriented. But McCann deftly draws not only Ciaran and his brother ( a monk), but a city full of other seemingly unrelated characters into a story of events in New York before, on, and after August 7. These characters include hookers in the Bronx, a "breakfast club" of mothers who lost sons in Vietnam, two artists who have dropped out of New York's club culture and moved upstate, a den of early hackers who hear about Petit's daring walk by calling a phone booth in Manhattan, the judge who hears Petit's case, and Petit himself.

The New York Times reviewer Jonathan Mahler compared Let the Great World spin to the movie Crash (which, perhaps not coincidentally, I loved), and the web of connections among the characters is similar, both in its strengths and weaknesses. But Petit's walk provides a more compelling and uplifting (pun intended) motif than the Los Angeles car culture. While the characters in Let the Great World Spin suffer grievous losses, many are also resilient; though damaged, they manage to construct lives that have meaning.

While McCann's book was a finalist for the National Book Award, reviewers have picked a variety of nits with it, including historical inaccuracies and what Wall Street Journal reviewer Kyle Smith called a tone of "quiet please, poetry being manufactured." Mr. Smith's snarkiness notwithstanding, I found the writing evocative and the book both engaging and rewarding. I nominated it for Novel Conversations to read, and I'm sad the group didn't pick it, as I think it would provoke great discussion.

Favorite passages:
There are moments we return to, now and always. Family is like water--it has a memory of what it once filled, always trying to get back to the original stream.

One of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days. New York had a way of doing that. Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.

. . . everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Secrets of Eden, by Chris Bohjalian

Secrets of Eden revolves around a terrible crime: a small-town Vermont couple, the Haywards, die violently-- the wife Alice was killed by her abusive husband George and George was first believed to be a suicide. As the story unfolds, however, questions arise about exactly how George died.

The story is told through four narrators. The first is Reverend Stephen Drew, who baptized Alice on the very day she was killed. When she emerged from the water, she said "There," a fact that, after her death, he comes to believe revealed that she knew she was going to die. His guilt leads to a crisis of faith, and he leaves town immediately after her funeral. Even before the crisis, Stephen's faith may not have been in the sturdiest condition (he describes those who rose to speak at church as needing "Prozac considerably more than they needed prayer"). We also learn that he had an affair with Alice some months previously. Through somewhat excessive foreshadowing, we know that he will become a suspect in the case.

The second narrator is the assistant DA, Catherine Benincasa, who does not like Reverend Drew and begins to suspect him ("For a minister," she says, "the guy had ice in his viens"). Benincasa never really comes alive as a character, but we do get a window into the investigation through her section of the book. The third narrator is a rather strange woman, Heather Laurent, who has written two best-selling books about angels. Her parents also died in a murder-suicide and she feels drawn to both Reverend Drew and Katie Hayward, Alice and George's teenage daughter. Heather and Stephen quickly become lovers but break up when Heather learns about Stephen's earlier affair with Alice. She too begins to suspect him in George' s death. Excerpts from Heather's books about angels are interspersed throughout Secrets of Eden, and I feel sure Bohjalian was trying to convey something through their inclusion, but I must say they did not speak to me.

The final narrator is Katie herself. Katie's voice feels the most authentic, and she is by far the most appealing character. The "surprise" ending, however, is actually rather predictable.

In our book group, members sometimes complain about the confusion shifting narrators can cause. In this case, because each narrator gets one section only, there is no confusion, but the book is also not as rich as it might have been had Bohjalian returned to each narrator after readers had gained some perspective from hearing the other characters' stories. In fact, while the mystery of the crime is resolved, I was more interested in what happened to the characters after their paths diverged--but that's not the direction Bohjalian took the story.

If you haven't read Bohjalian's earlier works, I would recommend Midwives, The Buffalo Soldier, or Before You Know Kindness over this book. If you have read Bohjalian's other books, this one may be somewhat disappointing. Despite that, it could still stimulate some good discussion at a book group.

Favorite passage:
Assume no one really knows anything that matters at all. Because, alas, we don't. All of our stories are suspect.